Cargo cults provide a fascinating insight into the origins of religion. Far from being lost in the mists of time, John Frum’s cargo cult began in the 20th Century and therefore makes for rather easier study than the Abrahamic religions or those of the Hindu tradition. Somewhat easier to study a religion which began within living memory than to have to delve back three to five thousand years.
The cult developed in Tannu island in the Pacific and was bolstered by the arrival of air dropped supplies by the US military during the Second World War. Picture an isolated tribe with little previous contact from the outside world, whose lives became magically improved by the arrival of food, clothes, medicine and weapons from the sky.
Man’s strongest emotion is fear. Fear of famine, drought, illness and death. He needs food, shelter, medicine and spiritual comfort. An ancient tribe faced by even the modest technology of our own era would consider much of what we do as magic. Little wonder then that worship develops and the providers of such munificent bounty from the sky become gods.
Ritual behaviour to appease and encourage such gods includes dressing in the style of US soldiers, building symbolic replica airplanes out of straw and cutting landing strips out of the jungle.
Students of religion will be familiar conceptually with such practices and the accompanying belief systems. Benign gods come to live among us and promise to return. They cause people to rise from the dead, they convert water into wine and cure madness. Their kingdom is to come after death and it promises an eternity where hunger, thirst and human misery are no more. The lion lays with the lamb and eternal peace is granted.
Beautiful, comforting myth. The stark reality is that we need to build our own heaven on earth by altering our violent and selfish behaviour and by pursuing scientific advances to ensure peace and plenty for all.